Last dance: History can’t save Seattle’s Avalon Ballroom
The two-story building at Stewart and Boren will be torn down to make way for offices and a hotel. But even if Seattle officials say the building isn’t historically significant, the Avalon Ballroom at the top of the stairs holds good memories for those who recall its 1930s-1950s heyday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Some historic buildings just aren’t worth preserving, and it turns out the Avalon Ballroom, at the corner of Stewart and Boren, is one of them.
It is a drab-looking Seattle place, a grayish, two-story building, built in 1931, that now has big signs advertising the ground-floor business, “Overnight Printing.”
The actual, massive 3,000-square-foot ballroom is reached by steep stairs to the second floor.
Sometime around August or September the place will be demolished to make room for a half-block development of a 14-story hotel and 11-story office building.
Anyway, most of those who would remember the Avalon’s heyday that lasted from the ’30s to the ’50s ... well, they’re dead.
It’s in a couple of old photos — showing happy couples dancing in front of a bandstand, a live band playing — that those times are remembered, and in the memory of someone like Jack Schroeder, 79.
He was attending Renton High School when his parents brought him to the Avalon. That would have been around 1947 or 1948.
“My daddy told me, ‘You’ve got to learn how to dance,’ ” remembers Schroeder.
“I told him, ‘I don’t dance. I catch footballs and bounce basketballs.’ He said, ‘If you learn how to dance, you can get any girl you want on the dance floor.’ It turned out to be true.”
Schroeder, a retired beauty-products distributor, still dances, and he helps out at the door taking in the $12 cover charge, sometimes dancing.
Some historic buildings get landmark status from the city. Not this one.
No significant architecture or design. Shabby. Lacked integrity because it had been altered over the years.
That’s what the six members of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board who were present concluded last August, when they unanimously votedthe building wasn’t worth nominating for historic status.
In 2012, the board reviewed 22 nominations; it approved 11 of them.
For the last 25 years, the ballroom has been used by the Washington Dance Club, which offers lessons, including with the indefatigable Schroeder, and Friday- and Sunday-night dances.
This Saturday night beginning at 8, the club is sponsoring a farewell dance for the ballroom, “before the wrecking ball,” says Christa Quackenbush, owner of the club.
On April 1, she will reopen at the Verve Ballroom in Lynnwood.
Quackenbush is 52 and took up ballroom dancing when she was working her way through college as a bartender and cocktail waitress.
“I was looking for something to do where people weren’t drinking,” says Quackenbush. She took dance lessons and got so good that pretty soon, she was hired to give them.
Then she heard the Avalon Ballroom was up for lease by the then-owners, the Boilermakers Local 104, which owned the building from 1943 until 2010, and used the ground floor for offices.
“Everybody can learn how to dance,” says Quackenbush. “For some people, it just might be box steps.”
That is the basic dance step that creates a square on the dance floor, and is all you need for a fox trot, waltz or rumba.
Last Friday night, 61 people showed up to dance at the ballroom.
A disc jockey plays everything from a waltz (Nat King Cole’s “Illusion”) to a cha-cha (Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band’s “Watermelon Man”).
The most recent memories of the Avalon Ballroom are from those who discovered the place in its latest recent reincarnation.
There were Rainer Burgdorfer and Debbie Burgdorfer, of Newcastle. He’s 64, a pile driver; she’s 57, a property accountant.
Both divorced, they got to know each other at the dances. The ballroom means so much to them that they married there in 2001.
“The cool thing about dancing here is that there is no hierarchy. It’s very egalitarian,” says the husband. “It’s not based on money or career. There are some physicians who dance here, and some bakers. It’s all about the dance.
“When you go to a regular club, it’s all about making a showing. Here, it’s a secret shared between two people. It’s not about impressing the rest of the people.”
On Friday night, helping out at the door is Jack Schroeder.
He remembers coming to the Avalon, smaller than the Spanish Castle on Pacific Highway South (bulldozed in 1968) or the Trianon downtown (closed in 1956, now turned into an office building), just as a change of pace.
The famous Parker’s Ballroom on Aurora Avenue North (demolished in 2012) was too far north for him
Those were the days of strict booze laws.
“I remember my dad bringing his bottle and you’d do setups,” says Schroeder. “You’d give the bottle to the bartender, and he’d charge you for mixing drinks.”
Schroeder raves about the ballroom’s floating maple dance floor.
He says it’s so named because the flooring is laid on top of a honeycomb structure that gives it extra spring.
“You can dance all day on it,” he says.
But even with the fantastic dance floor, the ballroom isn’t much to look at; the original ceiling has been replaced by one of those suspended acoustical ones with fluorescent lights; the tables and chairs are the utilitarian kind you’d find at a Bingo parlor.
On this evening, Schroeder, like most everyone else, is dressed informally, in a pullover and casual slacks.
It wasn’t like that back in the ’40s, he says.
“You always wore a jacket, although if you had a lot of sweat in the middle of a dance, you took it off,” says Schroeder.
But for recollections of even earlier days, when the joints were jumping during World War II, all that’s left are recordings of a few individuals.
Lorraine McConaghy, public historian at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), in 1985 taped the memories of an elderly woman named Jean Sprague.
Sprague remembered the Seattle dance halls:
“The dancing and the big-band music were divine — wonderful, romantic, dreamy! And there are always such romantic times during war, aren’t there? The dress-up, the big goodbye, the final embrace. You fell in love with almost every guy you danced with — the uniforms did it.”
In February 2010, the Boilermakers sold the Avalon to Touchstone Corp. for $4.5 million.
Because the proposed development is more than 4,000 square feet, the city requires a review for it to be considered a potential landmark.
Touchstone hired Seattle architect Larry Johnson, with a specialty in historical consulting, to prepare a report.
The city has six criteria for nominating a building as a landmark — including that it’s associated with a historic event, or a historically important person, or that it’s an outstanding work of a designer.
According to the minutes of Landmarks Preservation Board meeting in which he presented his report, Johnson said the Avalon met none of the criteria.
It had “rudimentary ornamentation and minimal detail.”
It was “never one of the finer or more popular spots.”
Does he feel a little of bit of nostalgia for the old ballroom?
“A little bit. Every time we lose a building, we remember going by that building or experiences in that building. It doesn’t matter what building,” he says.
It is true that no historically important people are associated with Avalon.
So far, only two photos have been located showing couples dancing at the joint during its prime.
In a storeroom at the Seattle Labor Temple on First Avenue are the archives for the Boilermakers Local 104. Glued in a big notebook are two undated photos.
By the dress of the men and women, and their hairstyles, it looks like the photos were taken in the 1940s.
They look happy.
Not historically important people.
Maybe just somebody’s grandparents, like yours.
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org